Thursday, 18 January 2018

Science Fiction: A Literary History, edited by Roger Luckhurst

The British Library has recently been republishing almost forgotten novels from its comprehensive archive (a copy of every book published in the UK is deposited with them). Their Classic Crime series of paperbacks has proved a great success with more than fifty novels republished, mainly from the 1930s. Everyone knows of Agatha Christie, but there were many other authors publishing detective stories in what might be regarded as the "golden age" of the murder mystery novel.

The good news for SF fans is that the British Library is following up the crime novels by launching a Science Fiction Classics series in 2018. Their press release states that Lost Mars and Moonrise will be published in April 2018. These are collections of republished short stories from the golden age of SF. Later titles in the series will include further anthologies and republished out-of-print novels, showcasing the best of forgotten SF alongside stories by H.G. Wells, J.G. Ballard, John Wyndham and other well-known writers of the genre.

In advance of this, the Library has recently published a non-fiction book, Science Fiction: A Literary History, and has provided me with a copy to review. Edited and introduced by Roger Luckhurst, this consists of eight chapters by different authors, each taking a different period of SF (although there are some overlaps, as the subject does not lend itself to neat chronological divisions). All of the authors are academics specialising in this field, so they bring a great depth as well as breadth of knowledge to the subject, covering international as well as English-language fiction and setting developments in the context of their times. Each chapter includes some monochrome depictions of contemporary illustrations, mostly book covers, and concludes with a long list of references and a short list of recommended reading, including novels and anthologies. Despite this thoroughness, at around 25-30 pages each chapter is digestible enough to absorb in one sitting. The chapters are:

1. The Beginnings: Early Forms of Science Fiction, by Arthur B. Evans.

The first chapter focuses on early science fiction, long before that name had become established with the advent of the US "pulp magazines" in the 1930s. Many fans tend to think of Jules Verne, followed by H G Wells, as being the most important pioneers, so it is interesting to read of the vast quantities of speculative fiction written before their time. This is emphasised by the 36-volume anthology of such fiction collated and commented on by French publisher Garnier in 1787. This was divided into four groups: Imaginary Voyages, Dreams, Visions, and Cabalistic Novels (dealing with the occult), and commenced with Lucian of Samosata's True History from two millennia ago.

From the 17th century onwards it was noticeable that rapid developments in scientific knowledge were picked up by writers of fiction (as they have been ever since). Many of the stories were not just entertainment, but were intended to teach scientific or socio-political lessons. The acceptance of the heliocentric solar system sparked a number of novels about interplanetary voyages, while there was a separate sub-section of "hollow earth" stories about adventures underground – Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth was really a late revival of this. Time travel also featured, with the first story mentioned being Madden's Memoirs of the Twentieth Century, published in 1733.

A subject of particular interest to me is Future Wars, which have featured in speculative fiction for a long time; I was pleased to see I. F. Clarke listed in the references, and I can recommend his Voices Prophesying War: Future Wars 1763-3749 as an outstanding work of international scholarship.

2. From Scientific Romance to Science Fiction: 1870-1914, by Roger Luckhurst.

In the latter part of the 19th century a combination of a great increase in literacy due to compulsory education, plus cheaper printing methods, and a thirst for entertainment, led to a rapid growth in the market for fiction. Initially this was mainly met by short stories or serials in magazines, but by the end of the century the one-volume novel had become popular. There were early signs of the culture wars resulting from the divergence between popular fiction and "the solid tradition of domestic realism" – a divergence which continues to this day with the sometimes sniffy disregard of genre fiction such as SF by the "literary" mainstream, despite the fact that some famous mainstream authors have written novels with an SF theme.

The increasing pace of developments in science and technology gave a further impetus to SF, with the public increasingly curious about what the future might bring and the authors stretching their imaginations as far as they could go. In the case of Wells's The Time Machine, that meant to the end of the world in the far future. Not all of speculative fiction was scientific, however; the "gothic horror" stories were still emerging, Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde among the best known of them, with others being more concerned with the supernatural. Marie Corelli was highly successful around the turn of the century through writing stories which blended "romance, gothic, historical and society" themes (I had never heard of her, and was surprised to discover that several of her novels are in print). Another sub-genre is identified as the "colonial romance", typified by H Rider Haggard, whose most famous work was King Solomon's Mines. Invasion stories remained popular into the 20th century, with William Le Queux among the most prominent authors; sadly, no mention here of Erskine Childers' The Riddle of the Sands, my favourite novel in any genre, although I have to admit it would be a stretch to include it in SF.

3. Utopian Prospects, 1900-1949, by Caroline Edwards.

Utopias have always been a feature of SF, usually consisting of a contemporary visitor travelling through space and/or time to a different world where everything is better than it is now. The name was first coined by Sir Thomas More for his 1516 book Utopia, describing a fictional island society off the coast of South America, but the concept is earlier still, going back to Plato's Republic. The purpose of most such stories was to point out the defects of contemporary society compared with the author's preferred solution, whether it be communism, fascism, feminism, arcadian (a reversion to pre-industrial), or anything else.

At the beginning of the 20th century H. G. Wells in A Modern Utopia (1905) was critical of the idealistic form of utopia, observing that for most of them to work would require a degree of compulsion only possible in a totalitarian state. In fact, utopian novels became more ambivalent, showing (as in Wells's Men Like Gods, 1922) that beneath the surface perfection there was much that was wrong. Eugenics became popular in both fiction and society – controlled breeding to weed out undesirable physical and personality traits, or (in the case of Huxley's Brave New World) breeding people to suit specific roles in society, with the most intelligent becoming rulers and those intended for manual work being bred for dumb strength. One such novel was Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915), which used eugenics to develop a perfect female-only society; a very early text which has inspired feminist SF authors to this day.

In the 20th century, utopian novels were joined by dystopian ones, often written to warn about where technological and social developments could take us. An early example was E. M. Forster's The Machine Stops (1909), in which extreme pollution has forced humanity to live underground, totally dependent on the Machine – which provides food and other necessities of life. Also significant at this time was Jack London's The Iron Heel (1908), forecasting the rise of a brutal capitalist oligarchy. Better known than either is Karel Čapek's 1920 play, Rossum's Universal Robots (R.U.R.), which introduced the term "robot" and foreshadowed future warfare between mankind and robots: yes, that's the basic Terminator film series plot, and the inspiration for Isaac Asimov's robot stories of 1939 to 1977.

One culture which surely provided lots of inspiration for dystopian writers was the USSR, although the most famous of these stories was also inspired by introduction of mass production: Yegevny Zamyatin's We (1920). This forecasts "a nightmare of unthinking, scientifically-managed production" so was banned by the leaders of the new revolution who were notoriously sensitive to anything which looked as if it might be critical of their actions. He was not the first Russian author to write in such terms: Valery Bryusov's The Republic of the Southern Cross (1907) is set in an apparent utopia which contains the seeds of its own destruction. Even under Stalin, utopias and dystopias were portrayed but, for obvious reasons, generally in terms which were favourable to communism; Alexei Tolstoy being a noted author (that's Aleksei Nikolayevich Tolstoy, not the 19th century author Aleksei Konstantinovich Tolstoy, nor the author of War and Peace who was Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy).

Perhaps the best-known of all dystopian novels is George Orwell's 1984 (1949) which I reviewed on this blog in September 2009, so I'll say no more about it here.

4. Pulp SF and its Others, 1918-39, by Mark Bould.

Up to now much of the attention has been focused on British and European "scientific romances", and H.G. Wells is given a final mention here for the fourth chapter in succession – a tribute to the remarkable contribution he made to SF – but developments in the USA were taking a different direction. The first indicator of this is generally held to be the appearance of Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories in April 1926, in which he announced his intention of publishing "scientifiction". Other magazines followed, notably Wonder Stories and Astounding. However, since 1860 there had been a lot of popular SF published in the USA along with more general fiction in the form of "dime novels". Collectively, this output is now commonly known as "pulp fiction": a term which emerged in the 1950s meaning "fiction dealing with lurid or sensational subjects, often printed on rough, low-quality paper manufactured from wood pulp".

In the interwar period, much British SF had a doom-laden flavour, no doubt influenced by the appalling disasters of World War 1 and the devastating Spanish 'flu which followed it. The end of human civilisation was a common theme, e.g. Cicely Hamilton's Thomas Savage (1922), John Gloag's To-Morrow's Yesterday (1932), and The World's End by William Lamb (Storm Jameson, 1937).

Some SF books of this time are strongly racist in theme, countered by others which are anti-colonialist or satirical about racism, particularly Black No More by African-American writer George S. Schuyler (1932). Alternative histories begin to make a mark, especially by L. Sprague de Camp. Feminist themes appear in SF, notably by Leslie F. Stone, and political issues commonly featured, usually favouring socialism. American novelists paid relatively little attention to the growth of Fascism and Nazism in Europe, a notable exception being Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here (1935) about a populist president who bypasses Congress, criminalises dissent and subverts the constitution to introduce a form of corporatist totalitarianism.

Planetary romances were popular in the USA, especially by Edgar Rice Burroughs, as were "weird fiction" tales by such as H. P. Lovecraft, and space opera by Edmond Hamilton and E. E. 'Doc' Smith. John W. Campbell wrote Who Goes There? (1938) about an alien invasion, but he was not just an author; his main claim to fame was his work as editor of Astounding, in which he favoured SF with a greater focus on scientific plausibility and consistent world-building.

5. After the War, 1945-65, by Malisa Kurtz.

The author identifies five major developments in SF which occurred in this period, which was dominated by American output. The first was the publishing boom and bust, the number of SF magazines reaching a peak of 37 in 1953 before falling to single figures a decade later. Paperback publishing was also at an all time high with some managing the breakthrough to become fiction best-sellers: in the UK, John Wyndham's dystopian The Day of the Triffids (1951 - reviewed on this blog in June 2012), and in the USA, Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) and Frank Herbert's Dune (1965 - reviewed April 2009). Other authors who achieved prominence in this time were Ray Bradbury, Frederick Pohl, Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick (who has since become uniquely successful in having much of his work translated to film or TV). This period also saw specialist SF book publishers thriving, most notably the "Ace Doubles" providing two novels in each book.

The second development was the identification of "hard SF" as a specific category, focusing on scientific rationalism. Arthur C. Clarke, James Blish, Poul Anderson, Hal Clement, and much of the output of Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, fall into this category. This was accompanied by the parallel development of "social SF", which was more concerned with "philosophical speculation, ethics and exploring the human condition". Galaxy magazine was one of the main publishers of this kind of story, and Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, and Pohl and Kornbluth, who collaborated to write The Space Merchants (1953 – reviewed here in November 2008), a satire on corporatism.

Disaster novels, particularly those associated with the consequences of an all-out thermonuclear war (which many living in that time regarded as a matter of "when", not "if"), were also popular in this period; Wyndham has already been mentioned, and J. G. Ballard was another British author who achieved success in this area. Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) is one of the most highly regarded American novels in this field. I have to say that although I read a lot of these post-apocalyptic books at the time, I find them mostly too depressing nowadays!

The final development described is women's SF as a critique. Female authors have long used SF as a vehicle for addressing socio-political issues in general and the roles of women in particular. Judith Merrill, Kate Wilhelm, Naomi Mitchison, Leigh Brackett, Joanna Russ and Ursula K. Le Guin are all notable in the SF field, with several others achieving success in the fantasy sub-genre.

6. The New Wave 'Revolution', 1960-76, by Rob Latham.

This is the chapter which interested me the most, as it covers the period when I started reading SFF and absorbed it in huge quantities – although as well as trying to keep up with the most noteworthy new publications I was also catching up with a lot of fiction from the 1950s and 1940s during this time.

It is often said that there are not many basic plots in fiction, perhaps more of a problem to SF as that thrives on novelty. By the 1960s, a lot of SF was perceived as being derivative, and this stimulated attempts to introduce radically different kinds of fiction – a movement which became dubbed the "New Wave", and is described as being "boldly experimental and militantly political". However, Latham argues that the break was not as distinct as this, with much of the groundwork for this fracturing of SF occurring as a result of previous changes, notably the loss of the dominance of the US market by a few magazine editors as authors enjoyed the greater freedom of publishing novels.

Nonetheless, this led to the formation of two opposed camps: the traditionalists vs the "avant-guardists" who were keen on breaking down the barriers between genre and mainstream literature. Leading the way was British author Michael Moorcock, already known for his Elric fantasies, who used his editorship of the New Worlds magazine to promote "a cross-fertililization of popular SF, science and the work of the literary and artistic avant-garde".  J. G. Ballard was the first author to feature, with William S. Burroughs, Brian W. Aldiss, John Sladek, Pamela Zoline, Norman Spinrad and Thomas M. Disch. I read all of these at the time, except for Zoline who I never encountered. Sales of New Worlds suffered as many of its readers preferred traditional SF, and in the USA the surviving magazines remained largely traditional; it was in novels that the avant-guard fiction flourished. Despite this, some great stories first emerged in serialised form (e.g. Frank Herbert's Dune and Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality series) while established writers Robert Silverberg and Harlan Ellison shifted gear to write New Wave fiction. The author observes that the US form of New Wave focused more on breaking taboos concerning sex and religion, from writers such as Philip K. Dick and Theodore Sturgeon.

By this time open warfare was taking place between the New Wavers and the traditionalists, largely in the form of a "generation gap". I was only vaguely aware of this at the time as I happily ploughed through whatever I could get my hands on, but I must admit I found the avant-garde authors much harder work to read, and the traditional SF a lot more fun and less depressing. Not all writers took sides – Ursula Le Guin remained an independent voice, and there was a remarkable resurgence of "Hard SF" from Larry Niven, Gregory Benford and John Varley (three of my favourite authors at the time). Indeed I would argue that Larry Niven's Known Space series could also be regarded as utopian in that it is set in a future in which humanity has spread through a huge volume of space, interacting with other races and cultures, with individuals becoming almost immortal; this now seems a very fanciful dream. Much the same could be said of Iain M. Banks's later Culture series.

The trend of writing apparently never-ending book series (very popular with publishers, as if the first book caught on the sequels sold themselves) also emerged, such as Frank Herbert's Dune,  Asimov's later Foundation and Robot books, and Anne McCaffrey's Pern novels (Dragonflight was another favourite of mine). C. J. Cherryh and Lois McMaster Bujold have followed this trend with fiction that is relatively traditional except that the old taboos on sexual issues have gone, with gay and lesbian characters routinely featuring. Eventually, the initially sharp boundary between traditional and avant-garde became softened, with fiction now spread across a continuum between the two extremes and frequently including elements of both.

7. From the New Wave into the Twenty-First Century, by Sherryl Vint.

The last quarter of the 20th century saw SF as a diverse field, with an increased focus on social and political issues including environmentalism, feminism, gender issues and anti-racism. A good example of environmental issues is Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy; of feminism, much of Sheri S. Tepper's work; of gender issues, Samuel R. Delaney; and of racism, Octavia E. Butler.

During this time the personal computer and the internet brought a revolution to society which was also reflected in SF with the growth of "cyberpunk", most notably William Gibson's Neuromancer. A kind of reaction to this came in the form of "steampunk", alternative worlds featuring Victorian steam-powered technology developed to a far greater extent, e.g. Gibson and Sterling's The Difference Engine. An interesting development was the adoption of SF plots by established mainstream authors such as Doris Lessing (Canopus in Argos sequence) and Margaret Atwood (Oryx & Crake trilogy; The Handmaid's Tale). Knowledge of SF from many other countries than the UK and USA increased as translations became more readily available.

There were attempts to establish new sub-genres. One was "Mundane SF", promoted by Geoff Ryman, which focuses on urgent real-world problems in the near future, and restricts itself to incorporating only known or feasible science – the "hardest" of Hard SF. So, conventional rockets exploring the solar system are OK, but interstellar faster-than-light ships, alien races and super-powers are not.  As science has developed, so has the scope of such stories, with the most recent developments in genetics opening up a range of possibilities for the future of humanity (see Nancy Kress's Sleepless series). Another new sub-genre was "The New Weird", coined by M. John Harrison; a fusion of SF, horror and surrealism.

By the end of the 20th century, SF had become an international means of exploring the consequences of the entire range of social, political and technological issues facing humanity; something which no other form of literature could claim.

8. New Paradigms, After 2001, by Gerry Canavan.

The final chapter starts with a rather sardonic summary of the failure to occur of the many futures forecast by SF authors for the year 2001 – starting, of course, with the film 2001 itself. However, the author notes that world events appear to be becoming more erratic, less predictable. He observes that Charles Stross recently had to rewrite a near-future SF story after the UK unexpectedly voted to leave the EU; sometimes, the timing of events can be unkind to authors.

As the various consequences of global warming gradually develop, these become the accepted background for any SF set on Earth in the foreseeable future. So does the shortage of certain key resources – mostly importantly, fresh water. I should perhaps note that this is not new; sometime in the 1970s I read a novel concerning a future in which the competition to secure water supplies had become the major factor in conflicts (sadly, my memory is unable to produce the title or author, but the publisher was probably Gollancz – I used to home-in on their distinctive, yellow-jacketed books in the library). As a result of these developments, any realistic SF set in the near-to-middling future tends towards pessimism if not full-blown dystopianism, with the ecological crisis overhanging everything.

The main competitor to environmental issues in recent SF has been the Singularity, defined here as "a period of exponential social and technological transformation that will be fuelled by the advent of self-augmenting artificial intelligence". This concept has now hit mainstream popular fiction, since it is a key plot element of Dan Brown's latest novel Origin, which emerged too recently for a mention in this book. However, this chapter is packed with details of authors and novels addressing these and other issues, far too many to list here. I will just note that I was pleased to see the inclusion on the recommended reading list of my favourite recent novel – something completely different, with a unique plot: China Miéville's The City and the City (reviewed in March 2012).


To sum up, Science Fiction: a Literary History is a compact yet authoritative and thorough summary of the field, charting its progress as a form of literature. My review is necessarily highly selective in terms of the books and authors mentioned, and in particular there is far more about fiction from the non-English speaking world than I have discussed here. This book benefits from the variety of authors, avoiding the single and possibly idiosyncratic viewpoint of most such histories. I found it fascinating to see the various strands of SF development dealt with in this way, and this will be guiding some of my future purchases of both old and new fiction in order to broaden my knowledge of the field. However, I doubt that I'll ever warm to the current trend for dystopian futures. For me, the main attraction of SF has always been that much-derided "sense of wonder" – having my imagination stretched by fascinating new concepts and unexpected (but preferably hopeful) futures.

1 comment:

Bill Garthright said...

Very interesting, Tony.